10 years in, Sheer Mag lead guitarist Kyle Seely is dialed into his band’s beguiling breadth of boogie, southern rock, ‘80s metal, and power pop sounds like never before.
A recent trio of vinyl reissues of the Philly unit’s earliest material, via Jack White’s Third Man Records, act as a primer for fans who missed it the first time around. For himself, Seely says he’s at a point where he’s psychically bonded with his hottest licks.
“Some of the stuff off those first two EPs are still my favorite songs to play,” he explains. “But you definitely reach a weird point. When I play Fan the Flames from 2015, I do this thing where I literally black out, and then the song’s over. I’m not even registering what I’m doing – it’s beyond muscle memory. I can only imagine what it’s like to be playing a 50-year-old song!”
It might be more about transcendence than being stuck in a rut. “For the guitar solo in Nobody’s Baby  I do this hammer-on lead thing, then go up and try to alternate pick it. There was a five-year period where I messed it up every single time! It’s part of getting older, the zoning out.” That’s no longer the case. “Sometimes you nail stuff better when you’re not thinking about it.”
Seely has grown into his role as the band’s chief riffer, often alternating between crystal-coated chord work and hearty, harmonious leads. He and his brother, bassist Hart Seely, had done time in screamo bands around Philadelphia in the mid ‘00s. While they often listened to classic rock, it didn’t initially dawn on them that they could make a melodic leap towards that sound.
Self-recording Sheer Mag songs – alongside rhythm guitarist Matt Palmer and vocalist Tina Halliday – meant they couldn’t help bringing a D.I.Y. scrappiness to their lo-fi, in-the-red mixes. “Some of the earlier stuff – the grittiness of the guitar playing – is more informed by punk than it might sound,” Seely says.
He also suggests an influence starter pack of AC/DC, Queen, the Allmans and Thin Lizzy, and notes the dexterous rhythmic syncopation of Meshuggah, the melodic sensibility of Boston’s Tom Scholz, and the underrated hybrid style of Cake six-stringer Xan McCurdy.
“You don’t necessarily think about Cake as being a shredding band, but [McCurdy] has this really awesome Tex-Mex style,” Seely says of the latter. “He does a similar thing to me where he plays rhythm and lead as one, and with the same tone.”
Seely’s main guitar has been the twang-heavy Mexican-made Nashville Deluxe Telecaster he got as a teenager. He’s also turned to Schecter Hellraisers and Gibson SGs for the Sunset Strip-style pieces on 2017 album Need to Feel Your Love and 2019’s A Distant Call. An ’82 JCM800 has been a mainstay, but Seely notes he and Palmer often go D.I. to get that “super-choppy, distorted, right-into-the-mixing board sound.”
Sheer Mag’s powerful push of rock, disco, and punk spirit garnered attention fairly quickly, leading to appearances on Late Night with Seth Meyers, a slot at Coachella, and tours with Power Trip. Just a few months after releasing A Distant Call, though, Seely uprooted to Australia. And then the pandemic happened. While he’d planned on being bi-continental, lockdowns halted Sheer Mag’s activity.
To cope, he connected with members of Melbourne hardcore aggressors GELD to form Erupt. The trio, for whom he played both guitars and drums, produced the “aggressive lockdown album” titled Left to Rot, which was inspired by early Kreator, Razor, and cult Italian hardcore act Raw Power.
“None of us really had those chops, but we were learning it together,” Seely says of the side-project. “I think the record is cool in the sense that it’s a bunch of guys trying to nail something – just giving it a crack – but you can tell it’s about to go off the rails at any second.”
Eventually, he made it back to Pennsylvania and Sheer Mag. Their first single in four years was this summer’s All Lined Up, a bongo-heavy boogie reveling in the late-night glow of a disco ball. Palmer supports Seely with a series of supple acoustic strums, while the lead guitarist waxes prismatic with echo-and-vibrato heavy phrasings.
While the band normally opt for the analog swirl of an MXR Carbon Copy to complement the lo-fi aesthetic the Harts achieve while tracking to tape, Seely’s solo on All Lined Up marks a rare digital moment. “I used my Line 6 Helix, which I basically use at home for proof of concept,” he explains.
“I don’t really use it live or for recording, but in that case we brought the demo to Hunter Davidson, who we mixed with, and he was like, ‘That’s the coolest part of the song! We can’t redo that.’ No shade to [the Helix] – it sounds really good, but we usually try to get the real thing in there.”
All Lined Up seemed like it would lead to danceable EP made up of “four kinda-rockin’ disco songs” – but that didn’t happen. Instead, the band ended up getting lost in the process and cranked out a full-length that Seely says taps into glam and power pop, more so than the studded-belt pomp of A Distant Call. “Maybe that’s a result of Erupt. Who knows?”
The new album, Playing Favorites, is due in the spring of 2024, also via Third Man. They’ve just teased the release with the fist-pumping garage-pop title track, a classic road anthem where Halliday’s powerhouse vocal highlights how she’s stoked to be ‘back in the van, like in the old days, playing the same old songs.’ Whether blackout-prone Seely will remember any of those performances, though, is anyone’s guess.
- Playing Favorites is out on March 1 2024 via Third Man Records.